Thomas Münzer, the Peasant's Prophet, 1525. Photo: WIkimedia Commons Thomas Münzer, the Peasant's Prophet, 1525. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

Commemorating its 500 year anniversary, Sean Ledwith argues that the Reformation was an era of political upheaval in Western Europe

500 years ago, on the 31st October, an obscure monk named Martin Luther nailed a densely argued theological tract to the door of the main church in the German university town of Wittenberg. The document, known as the Ninety-Five Theses, proved to be the trigger for decades of social and political tumult that would mark the end of the medieval world and the birth of the modern. Luther’s iconic act of heterodoxy sparked the onset of an era of religious upheaval in Western Europe known as the Reformation that would shake to its roots the feudal establishment that had dominated the continent since the decline of the Roman Empire centuries earlier. The Catholic Church that held a vice-like grip on the consciousness of the majority of Europe’s population would come under unprecedented levels of ideological and political attack and see its influence massively reduced in huge swathes of its former territory.

Precursor of revolution

Today the Reformation is commemorated primarily as a religious event that initiated the numerous denominations and sects of Protestantism that have since spread around the globe. The deeper significance of the event, however, lies in its role as the precursor of the great wave of later revolutions in Holland, England and France that would sweep away the final vestiges of feudalism, launch the capitalist mode of production and witness the historic intervention of mass movements from below. Luther remains for most the key figure of the Reformation, but for thinkers on the radical left such as Engels, Kautsky and Ernst Bloch, the true hero of the transformation was an itinerant preacher named Thomas Muntzer who rallied the peasantry of Germany for an epic uprising of the oppressed that went far beyond the scholastic disputations of the monk from Wittenberg. Muntzer’s message of an apocalyptic war against a callous and closeted elite resonates just as strongly in the 21st century as it did originally in the sixteenth:

It is an article of our creed, and onewhich we wish to realise, that all things are in common [omnia sunt communia], and should be distributed as occasion requires, according to the several necessities of all. Any prince, count or baron who, after being earnestly reminded of this truth, shall be unwilling to accept it, is to be beheaded or hanged.

Tetzel’s trade

Luther had been anticipated in his critique of the corruption of the Catholic Church in previous centuries by religious reformers such as the Albigensians in France, John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia .The contrast between the Church’s message of compassion and equality and the reality of its incorporation into the feudal structure of greed and oppression had become increasingly apparent to growing numbers of disillusioned laymen and scholars. The Papacy had become mired in the power politics of the late medieval world and had long since lost its moral authority after becoming the plaything for aristocratic cliques such as the Borgias and the Medicis. For Luther and the first wave of Protestant reformers in the second decade of the sixteenth century, the pernicious practice of selling Indulgences crystallised their rejection of the financial impulses that dominated the activity of the Church. The vanity project of restoring the Vatican in Rome induced Pope Leo X to authorise the selling of supposed forgiveness of sins throughout Europe by travelling preachers such as the notorious Johann Teztell,whose slogan was as memorable as it was cynical : As soon as the gold in the casketrings; the rescued soul to heaven springs.

Fusion of forces

Luther’s denunciation of Tetzel might have led him inexorably to a flaming execution in a previous era but by the early 1500s a fusion of social, political and technological developments provided the protective shield that would keep him alive and allow the message of ecclesiastical reform to flourish. New commercial and mercantile classes were evolving in the towns and cities of northern Europe that resented the shackles placed on their economic enterprises by the huge land-lording power of Rome. Powerful German nobles and princes, such as Frederick of Saxony, looked to the growing wealth of the new industrial and mining assets of their regions to provide the impetus for a political break with the Church. The breakthrough technology of the printing press, pioneered by Johannes  Gutenberg, enabled Luther’s campaign for change to spread like wildfire through populations that had been denied access to education for centuries.

Engels identified how this convergence of forces created the platform for the Reformation to take off in the sixteenth century. In his account of Muntzer’s  revolution written in the 1870s he noted:

From the thirteenth to the seventeenth century all thereformations and the struggles carried out under religious slogans that were connected with them were, on the theoretical side, nothing but repeated attempts of the burghers and plebeians in the towns and the peasants who had become rebellious by contact with both the latter to adapt the oldtheological world outlook to the changed economic conditions and the condition of life of the new class.

Patterns of revolution

Three years after his dramatic act of nocturnal propaganda, Luther was in the protective custody of Frederick, having faced down the theological henchmen of the Pope at a public debate known as the Diet of Worms. In Frederick’s stronghold of the Wartburg, an impenetrable fortress in the mountains of Thuringia, Luther was able to elaborate the ideological impact of Protestantism with his revolutionary notion of justification by faith alone (thereby short-circuiting the Church’s putative role as divine mediator) and by translating the Bible in the idiom of German, thus unleashing its implied message of social justice and equality on a world in which both were suppressed. At this point in the mid-1520s, the German Reformation, established the pattern that would be repeated in later manifestations of bourgeois revolution in other countries over the next two centuries: an initial assault on the citadels of feudal power draws back, having secured a degree of control over the instruments of state power and faced with the emergence of even more radical movements from below. Just as Cromwell in England would be challenged from the left by the Levellers and the Jacobins in France likewise by the Enrages, Luther and his political patrons faced a revolt of the voiceless led by Thomas Muntzer.

The clarion call of reform that emerged from Wittenberg had released the genie of change from the bottle but once the Reformation had supplied a degree of economic and political independence deemed sufficient for Frederick and the other princes, Luther and the first wave of Protestants tried to slam on the brakes. The tumult stirred up among the peasantry by a state-sponsored campaign against Indulgences and traditional Catholic iconography in their own language began to overtake the expectations of Luther and Frederick. The former sought to dampen down the growing aspirations of the peasantry that calls to overthrow clerical corruption would expand into a challenge to all forms of social and political exploitation. In his address To the nobility of the German nation of 1520 Luther stated:

I should not like to see the Gospel defended by force and bloodshed. The world was conquered by the Word, the Church has maintained itself by the Word, the Church will come into its own again through the Word, and as Antichrist gained ascendancy without violence, so without violence he will fall.

New flag-bearer

As Luther’s commitment to extend the impact of the Reformation into the political sphere began to wane, Thomas Muntzer emerged as the flag-bearer for the radicalisation of Protestantism into a full-frontal attack on both the Roman establishment and the German variation that sought to supplant it. Muntzer had been an early collaborator with Luther in the initial campaign against Papal venality. After his death, political enemies would propagate a caricature of Muntzer as a rabid and unhinged rabble-rouser but his university education was actually marked by a gift for foreign languages and an enthusiasm for the new spirit of scholarly humanism being embraced by Europe’s intellectual elite. His radical tendencies were possibly born the day his peasant father was hanged by a malicious landlord on a whim.

Muntzer’s trajectory towards the radical wing of the Reformation, however, was primarily shaped by his encounter with millenarian sects that preached revolution in the guise of the apocalypse and Second Coming. Muntzer became a prominent member of one of these groups in the Saxon city of Zwickau but was forced to flee when the authorities launched a crackdown rightly sensing that the message of subversion was closing in on them. Escaping to Prague, Muntzer’s ideological journey to the left was further assisted by his interactions with the surviving followers of Jan Hus, whose proto-revolutionary campaign had been cut short by burning on the orders of Rome in 1485. Muntzer returned to Germany in 1524 to pick up the torch of resistance that Luther had thrown aside out of fear of losing the support of his aristocratic allies.

Engels neatly encapsulates how the contrasting personalities of the two men reflected one phase of revolution giving way to another:

We see how truly the character and the behaviour of the two party heads reflected the position of their respective parties. Luther’s indecision, his fear of the movement, assumed serious proportions; his cowardly servility towards the princes corresponded closely to the hesitating, vacillating policy of the middle-classes. The revolutionary energy and decisiveness of Muntzer, on the other hand, was seen in the most advanced faction of the plebeians and peasants.

Liberation theology

The unfolding dynamic of resistance led the most advanced section of the rural and urban downtrodden led them to forge their own anti-feudal manifesto known as the Twelve Articles, including demands such as the abolition of serfdom, the end to enclosing of common land and the freeing-up of fishing and hunting rights for the peasantry. Muntzer resumed his preaching career in the town of Allstedt but adopted the unprecedented practice of delivering his liturgy and sermons in German, thereby making them accessible to many ordinary people for the first time. The effect was explosive. The town was said to have a population of only a couple of hundred and yet 2000 would regularly turn up from the surrounding area to hear Muntzer’s early version of liberation theology. His audience was made up of miners, artisans and peasants, all primed for a message of hope amid the grinding misery of their everyday lives.  His incendiary oratory, it was said “could sway crowds, play onthe strings of their emotions, move them to tears of self-abnegation or roars of indignant rage.

Muntzer became the focal point for a network ofradical preachers throughout Germany who took up arms when it became apparent the princes were planning to use military force to crush the accelerating peasants’ revolt in the countryside. Luther, by the middle of 1525, had nailed his colours firmly to the mast of reaction and issued a blood-curdling call for the feudal masters to smash the escalating movement from below:

To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog!” – “If they say that I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned. Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like mad dogs.

Muntzer’s tragedy

With Luther’s exhortation as their justification, the imperilled nobles hired a mercenary army to eradicate Muntzer’s message once and for all. The radical preacher had mobilised a peasant army of 8000 but at the battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525 they proved hopelessly under-prepared with pitchforks and scythes in the face of the cannon and gunpowder available to the professional soldiers led by the dukes Philip of Hesse and George of Saxony. Almost half of Muntzer’s army was wiped out at the cost of just four men on the other side.  Muntzer escaped the carnage but was inevitably captured, tortured and executed a few weeks later. It was with Muntzer in mind that Engels made his famous comment about the tragedy of leaders who arise in historical periods before the means exist to fulfil their revolutionary potential:

The worst thing that can befall aleader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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